Ever since I started writing about the issue of Iran’s nuclear program I had little doubt as to the dispute’s outcome. The consequences of a war with Iran for the U.S’s international standing and for the global economy were just too horrific to contemplate and peace would free up Washington to focus more on more pressing international priorities than this cooked-up controversy with Iran. So when the deal’s Congressional opponents occasionally floated legislation that would have doomed diplomacy by imposing more sanctions on Iran, I saw those attempts at playing spoiler as empty gestures that had no shot at passing. Indeed, none of the bills concerning the Iran deal that contained problematic language and poison-pill provisions that would have upended the negotiations managed to succeed in Congress. Another piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Ben Cardin that supposedly seeks to strengthen the implementation of JCPOA will meet the same fate and Tyler Cullis explains the major reason why:
“Although much attention has been focused on the constraints the JCPOA places on Iran’s nuclear program, few have noted that the Main Text of the JCPOA includes a provision stating that the “E3/EU+3 and Iran reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the United Nations as set out in the UN Charter”—a not-so-subtle reminder that UN Member-States are obligated to “refrain…from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…” In consideration of the fact that the United States was arguably in violation of UN Charter Article 2(4)’s prohibition on the threat of force—perhaps the bedrock principle of the UN Charter—ever since President Obama first uttered the “all-options-on-the-table” line and started to operationalize it, the inclusion of this provision in the introductory paragraphs of the JCPOA likely held a great deal of importance for the Iranians. Passing legislation inclusive of a provision that is, at the very least, in tension with this clear obligation to refrain from the threat of force is an early suggestion to Iran that the United States is operating in bad faith in its implementation of the nuclear accord.”
Yes, not only would the U.S. unilaterally attacking Iran be a violation of international law but it turns out so are threats to do so. The United Nations Security Council is the sole entity capable of lawfully issuing threats, as Reza Nasri helpfully reminds us. Yet Cullis was right to qualify his statement that the Obama administration’s threats were “arguably” in violation of Article 2(4) because this whole time the White House has made use of ambiguity by never declaring that the attack would be of a unilateral nature. The threats could have been referring to a multilateral response all along and it’s safe to say that’s the military option the administration truly favors. There is even a precedent for this clever position from a couple years ago regarding Syria. President Obama said, according to Reuters, that he “reserved the right to resort to both diplomatic and military options to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” but quickly insisted that attacking Syria was “not something that the Unites States does by itself.”
So the international community will be making the call to endorse a coalition mission in the event Iran was caught building nukes but would it? We can get a sense of the answer from a piece by Bennett Ramberg pondering the options for the U.S. if Iran breaks the JCPOA:
“But the chance that snap-back will suffice were Iran to make the audacious decision to break out is questionable. Then what? One course would follow [President Lyndon] Johnson’s China path: stand down military responses and manage nuclear risks that follow. History found it to be the right decision. If, however, today’s policymakers conclude that a nuclear Iran would be a malignant adversary, one more prone to nuclear use than any country since World War Two, then only the Iraq strategies applied in 1991 and 2003–using military force with occupation or insertion of inspectors authorized and capable of destroying all Iranian nuclear contraband–would serve.”
The rest of the world would certainly be using that criterion in shaping its judgment of how threatening a nuclear-armed Iran would be and, based on that, they would determine that Iran going nuclear wouldn’t merit a military mission. There is nothing indicating that Iran would behave any differently from other nations that got the bomb. In fact, there are two nuke-possessing nations that rank ahead of Iran on the ‘most likely to push the red button’ list. “It has to be asked,” writes Leslie Gelb, “who is more likely to use nukes—North Korea, Pakistan, or Iran? Most experts pick Pakistan first, then North Korea.” The world couldn’t in good conscience advocate an invasion of Iran when it took no action whatsoever when two nations currently considered more liable to launch nukes were crossing the threshold. Besides, it would be beyond nonsensical to wage a war and long-term occupation at a mind-boggling cost to the global economy when diplomacy could much more effectively disarm Iran. Remember, Iran looks down upon nuclear weapons, knows them to be mostly useless, doesn’t want them and would absolutely jump at the opportunity to be rid of them.